Dennis Robaugh, the managing editor of the Southtown Star until he was laid off a week and a half ago, said something lovely and inspirational when he spoke to me about what was happening to our business.
“Journalism is going to survive,” he said. “It’s a strong thing. It’s like a river. It may change directions, it may get dirty, but water gets to wherever it needs to go.”
If Robaugh had said that to an audience of battered journalists he’d have been interrupted by applause, as Don Hayner, editor of the Sun-Times, was when he spoke Friday night with similar fervor at the Lisagor Awards dinner.
But the more elegant the metaphor, the more skeptical we need to be of it. Robaugh’s words turned in my head until finally I decided they were not only more poetic than true but perhaps even dangerous. Not that Robaugh himself doesn’t know better, but the idea of journalism as an irresistible force supports the very bad idea that news has no choice but to come to us. An earthquake kills dozens in Italy and of course we soon know all about it. Word reaches us like water does — or, more precisely, like the light of the sun shining over the earth. Somehow, we assume, anything that happens that matters radiates what we need to know about it.
News doesn’t work that way. But a lot of people seem to think all journalists do is distort a natural process that would edify us splendidly if we left it alone.